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The Declaration of the Rights of Man

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The Declaration of the Rights of Man

The meeting of the Estates-General and subsequent declaration of the National Assembly in 1789 kickstarted the French Revolution. This new body, which more broadly represented the French people, declared itself the National Constituent Assembly in July and began to work on a new constitution for France. The basis of that constitution would be based on the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a document that laid out the rights they believed all men had. Here you will learn about the Declaration of the Rights of Man's importance and a summary of what it said.

Declaration of the Rights of Man Definition

The Declaration of the Rights of Man's full name is The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The National Constituent Assembly adopted it as a guiding document for how French society should be reorganized.

After the Estates-General's meeting and the Third Estate's decision to declare itself a National Assembly, they were forced to meet at a Tennis Court. They took their Tennis Court Oath to write a new constitution for France. The Declaration of the Rights of Man was an initial step towards doing so.

It established a set of principles that assigned certain rights to everyone that should be respected, as well as asserted the idea of popular sovereignty over the divine rights of kings as practiced by absolutist rulers in France. It also established legal equality between social classes, calling for the end of special privileges for the aristocracy.

Popular Sovereignty:

The idea that the power of the government comes from the consent of its citizens.

Declaration of the Rights of Man Definition Tennis Court Oath StudySmarter

Painting showing the Tennis Court Oath. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Declaration of the Rights of Man Date

The adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man date was on August 26, 1789. That was the day the National Constituent Assembly approved the full text of the document.

King Louis XVI refused to sign the document at first. Finally, on October 5, under pressure from protests at Versailles, he signed the document. It would serve as the preamble for the Constitution of 1791.

There was a second, more extensive, and updated version of the document proposed and debated in 1793, but it was never formally adopted.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

The full name of the document is The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

A first draft of the document was primarily written by the Marquis de Lafayette. He redacted some sections with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the United States Declaration of Independence.

The final text approved on the Declaration of Rights of Man's date of adoption was based on reworks and a final draft by Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and Honoré Mirabeau.

The document was based mainly on ideas of the Enlightenment, especially as it relates to natural rights and the social contract as expressed by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire. It also referenced the idea of the separation of powers promoted by Montesquieu.

Men are born and remain free and equal in rights."1

Declaration of the Rights of Man Summary

An essential cause of the declaration of the National Assembly and the start of the French Revolution was the privileges enjoyed by the First and Second Estates.

Therefore, a crucial part of the Declaration of Rights of Man was establishing a single set of rights that all citizens should enjoy equally. They were considered universal and natural rights and were set out in a collection of 17 articles.

Among those rights were:

  • Liberty
  • Property
  • Safety from Oppression
  • Equality under the law
  • Due legal process
  • Freedom of opinion, speech, and religion

In addition to these rights, the document also contained articles that explicitly rejected absolute monarchy by declaring that sovereignty resided in the nation, not any individual, and stating valid government would have a separation of powers.

It also rejected special privileges for some by stating that the law should apply equally to all persons and positions in government, and other occupations should be determined by merit, not by social class or heritage.

Given the importance of taxes to the causes of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man also established that taxes should be distributed equally and based on people's ability to pay. It also called for transparency in how these taxes were used and citizens' right to receive an account of its administration.

Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law."2

Declaration of the Rights of Man Definition StudySmarter

Engraving of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Declaration of the Rights of Man Importance

The Declaration of the Rights of Man's importance consists mainly in its guidance of the early course of the French Revolution in the early moderate stage & liberal reform period. It also had influence outside of France, and some pointed out and criticized its lack of inclusion at the time and today.

Declaration of the Rights of Man's Importance on Events in France

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen became a sacred document for the French revolutionaries and foundational to the French Revolution. Both moderates and radicals celebrated its signing and viewed it as a guiding document. For example, the Jacobin's membership manual required that fellows uphold the declaration.

In addition to serving as the preamble of the Constitution of 1791, its elemental assertion that political power should be vested in the citizens, all those citizens should have equal rights and protections under the law, and that the state should protect them guided other events of the revolutionaries, including the more limited reforms of the early stages of the Revolution, the more extreme actions of the radical stage of the Revolution, and even the calls to return to moderation during the reactionary stage.

The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man."3

Influence on the Haitian Revolution

While the Declaration of the Rights of Man did not extend rights to enslaved people, it did contribute to calls for freedom that helped spark the Haitian Revolution. There, a revolt fought by enslaved people would eventually lead to the first black republic. The Haitian revolutionaries were inspired to revolt in part by the ideals expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

Critics of the Limited Definition of Citizen

Besides not extending the rights to enslaved people, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen also did not extend them to women or non-landholders.

The full rights expressed in the document were only granted to men over 25 years of age who paid taxes and could not be considered servants. In practice, only a relatively small percentage of French males who owned land were entitled to full rights and the vote. This led to criticism from more radical democrats like Robespierre, who believed the franchise should be extended to all men, such as the urban working class of the Sans-Culottes.

The exclusion of women from the document also has been pointed out by women at the time and historians today. Olympe de Gouges published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen in 1791. Mimicking the style and language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, she wrote a parallel series of point-by-point responses extending the rights to women and explicitly critiquing the original document. She was later tried for treason and executed for criticizing the National Convention.

Declaration of the Rights of Man Significance

Despite these shortcomings, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen remains important.

It represented a clear break with the past, signaling the end of the Ancién Regime and the preeminence of the ideas of legal equality and natural rights. Besides influencing events in France and the French colony of Haiti, it inspired calls for reform, Revolution, and democracy elsewhere, influenced the adoption of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, and contributed to the foundations of modern democracy.

Declaration of the Rights of Man - Key takeaways

  • The French National Constituent Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen on August 26, 1789.
  • It established the ideas of equality under the law, that government was meant to represent and serve the people and established certain natural rights that all citizens were entitled to.
  • Critics pointed out that the rights were only extended to those considered citizens, which were landowning men.
  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was important to shaping the French Revolution.

References

  1. French Constituent Assembly Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen Article 1, 1789
  2. French Constituent Assembly Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen Article 4, 1789
  3. French Constituent Assembly Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen Article 2, 1789

Frequently Asked Questions about The Declaration of the Rights of Man

The Declaration of the Rights of Man was a document adopted early in the French Revolution that established that all citizens had certain rights that should be respected.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man was written in late 1789. It was formally adopted on August 26, 1789.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man was written to establish guiding principles for a new constitution for France early in the French Revolution. It formally ended absolute monarchy and the privileges of the aristocracy.

The Marquis de Lafayette wrote a first draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and Honoré Mirabeau wrote the final draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man protected life, liberty, property, due legal process, and freedom of speech and religion.

Final The Declaration of the Rights of Man Quiz

Question

What body passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man?

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Answer

The National Constituent Assembly

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Question

What date was the Declaration of the Rights of Man adopted?

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Answer

August 26, 1789

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Question

Who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man?

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Answer

Marquis de Lafayette wrote a first draft, Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and Honoré Mirabeau wrote the final draft.

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Question

True or False:  King Louis XVI immediately accepted the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

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Answer

True

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Question

Name at least 3 rights the Declaration of the Rights of Man identified.

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Answer

Possible answers:


Liberty

Property

Freedom from oppression

Legal equality

Due legal process

Freedom of Speech

Freedom of Religion

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Question

Where did the Declaration of the Rights of Man say political sovereignty came from?

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Answer

The citizens

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Question

What did the Declaration of the Rights of Man say about the privileges of the aristocracy?

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Answer

It established that the law should apply to everyone equally and occupations should be based on merit not social class.

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Question

The Declaration of the Rights of Man was a part of what other important document?

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Answer

The Constitution of 1791

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How did the Declaration of the Rights of Man contribute to the Haitian Revolution?

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Answer

The ideas of equality inspired the slaves to revolt to obtain freedom.

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Question

Why did women criticize the Declaration of the Rights of Man?

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Answer

It only applied to citizens who were landowning men, and women were not given the same rights.

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